Ode To Investors: Super Size Me!

Daniel Tarullo Federal Reserveskeeze / Pixabay

How do you take your plaque?

C’mon, we all have our victual vices that risk turning the gourmet in us gourmand. Those naughty nibbles that do so tempt us. Is it a bacon, cheese, well…anything? Maybe a slice of pie – pizza or otherwise? Or do you take yours scattered, smothered and covered? As in how you order your late-night hashbrowns at Waffle House – scattered on the grill, smothered with onions and covered with melted cheese. That last order is sure to do the trick if clogging your arteries is your aim. Too exhausted to trek inside? Hit the drive through. It’s the American way.

QE

Enter Morgan Spurlock. In 2003, he had grown so alarmed with the ease with which we can go from medium to jumbo (in girth) he conducted a filmed experiment. For 30 days, Spurlock consumed his three squares at McDonald’s, a neat average of 5,000 calories a day, twice what’s recommended for a man to maintain his body weight. Fourteen months later, Spurlock managed to shed the 24 pounds he’d packed on.

Released in 2004, Super Size Me garnered the nomination for Best Documentary Feature.

And since then? A freshly released paper finds that more than 30 percent of Americans were obese in 2015 compared with 19 percent in 1997. Of those who were overweight or obese, about 49 percent said they were trying to lose weight, compared to 55 percent in 1994.

One must ask, where’s that “Can Do!” spirit? Why acquiesce given the known benefits of restraint? Perhaps we’d be just as well off asking that same question of the world’s central bankers who seem to have also thrown in the towel on discipline, opting to Super Size their collective balance sheet, the known hazards be damned.

At the opposite end of the over-indulge-me spectrum sits one Harvey Rosenblum, a central banker and my former mentor who sought to push his own discipline to the limits throughout his 40 years on the inside, to take a stand against the vast majority of his peers. Consider the paper, co-authored with yours truly, released in October 2008 — Fed Intervention: Managing Moral Hazard in Financial Crises.

In the event your memory banks have been fully withdrawn to a zero balance, October 2008 is the month that followed the magnificent dual implosions of Lehman Brothers and AIG.

To speak of insurers and quote from our paper: “Moral hazard, a term first used by the insurance industry, captures the unfortunate paradox of efforts to mitigate the adverse consequences of risk: They may encourage the very behaviors they’re intended to prevent. For example, individuals insured against automobile theft may be less vigilant about locking their cars because losses due to carelessness are partly borne by the insurance company.”

As it pertains to central banking, we had this to say: “Lessening the consequences of risky financial behavior encourages greater carelessness about risk down the road as investors come to count on benign intervention. By intervening in a financial crisis, the Fed doesn’t allow markets to play their natural role of judge, jury and executioner. This raises the specter of setting a dangerous precedent that could prompt private-sector entities to take additional risk, assuming the Fed will cushion the impact of reckless decision-making.”

What a redeeming difference eight years can make?

If you’ve read Fed Up, you’ll recognize these words, which open Chapter One: “Never in the field of monetary policy was so much gained by so few at the expense of so many.” Every chapter of the book begins with a quote, most of them ill-fated words straight out the mouths of Greenspan, Bernanke and Yellen, chief architects of the sad paradox that’s benefitted “so few.” Those prescient words were written in November 2015 by Bank of America ML’s Chief Investment Strategist Michael Hartnett, before Brexit was on the tips of any of our tongues, before the anger of the “many” erupted at voting booths.

Chapter One goes on to recount the Federal Reserve’s December 2008 decision to lower interest rates to zero. According to the Bernanke Doctrine, the Fed’s purchasing securities, quantitative easing (QE) could not commence until interest rates had hit their lower bound. To suggest the chairman’s blueprint was arbitrary requires a vivid imagination. Few appreciate the Doctrine was conceived in August 2007 in Jackson Hole, in the tight company of his chief architects. But one can breathe a sigh of relief his models did not necessitate negative interest rates.

We know it’s been over two years since the Federal Reserve stopped growing its balance sheet to its current $4.5 trillion size. And yet, investors are anything but alarmed, comforted in their knowledge that Liberty Street stretches round the globe. There are plenty of corners on which moral hazard dealers can ply their wares, luring animal spirits out of their lairs. QE is global, it’s fungible and it feels so good.

As Hartnett reminds us in his latest dispatch, global QE is, “the only flow that matters.” Add up the furious flowage and you arrive at a cool $1 trillion central banks have bought thus far this year (note: it’s April). That works out to a $3.6-trillion annualized rate, the most in the decade that encompasses the years that made the financial crisis “Great.”

“The ongoing Liquidity Supernova is the best explanation why global stocks and bonds are both annualizing double-digit gains year-to-date despite Trump, Le Pen, China, macro…”

As so many sailors fated to crash onto the rocky shores of Sirenuse, investors have complied with central bankers’ biddings. And why shouldn’t they?

As Bernanke himself wrote in defense of QE in a 2010 op-ed, “Higher stock prices will boost consumer wealth and help increase confidence, which can also spur spending. Increased spending will lead to higher incomes and profits that, in a virtuous circle, will support further economic expansion.”

What a relief! This won’t end as tragically as the Greeks would deem fit. It’s the wealth effect, a different myth altogether, protected by virtue herself.

Investors are excelling at obedience in such rude form they’ve plowed fresh monies into emerging market debt funds for 12 weeks running. As for stocks, forget the fact that it’s a handful (actually two hands) of stocks that are responsible for half the S&P 500’s gains. Passive is hot, red hot. According to those at Bernstein toiling away at tallying, within nine months more than half of managed US equities will be managed passively.

As if to celebrate this milestone, Hartnett reports that an ETF ETF has completed its launch sequence. What better way to mark a decade that’s seen $2.9 trillion flow into passive funds and $1.3 trillion redeemed from active managers? In the event you too need a definition, an ETF ETF is comprised of stocks of the companies that have driven the growth of the Exchange Traded Funds industry. But of course.

In the event you’re unnerved by the abundance of blind abandon in our midst, it helps to recall the beauty of moral hazard. Central bankers know what they’re doing in encouraging moral hazard and they’ve got your back. If they can’t prevent, they can at least mitigate the future economic damage they’re manufacturing.

As Bernanke said in a 2010 interview, “if the stock market continues higher it will do more to stimulate the economy than any other measure.” If that was true then, isn’t it even truer today? More has to be more. Why diet when it’s so much more satisfying to indulge to our heart (attack’s) abandon?

Article by Danielle DiMartino Booth, author of Fed Up: An Insider’s Take on the Why the Federal Reserve is Bad for America



About the Author

Danielle DiMartino
Called "The Dallas Fed's Resident Soothsayer" by D Magazine, Danielle DiMartino Booth is sought after for her depth of knowledge on the economy and financial markets. She is a well-known speaker who can tailor her message to a myriad of audiences, once spending a week crossing the ocean to present to groups as diverse as the Portfolio Management Institute in Newport Beach, the Global Interdependence Center in London and the Four States Forestry Association in Texarkana. Danielle spent nine years as a Senior Financial Analyst with the Federal Reserve of Dallas and served as an Advisor on monetary policy to Dallas Federal Reserve President Richard W. Fisher until his retirement in March 2015. She researches, writes and speaks on the financial markets, focusing recently on the ramifications of credit issuance and how it has driven equity and real estate market valuations. Sounding an early warning about the housing bubble in the 2000s, Danielle makes bold predictions based on meticulous research and her unique perspective honed from years in central banking and on Wall Street. Danielle began her career in New York at Credit Suisse and Donaldson, Lufkin & Jenrette where she worked in the fixed income, public equity and private equity markets. Danielle earned her BBA as a College of Business Scholar at the University of Texas at San Antonio. She holds an MBA in Finance and International Business from the University of Texas at Austin and an MS in Journalism from Columbia University. Danielle resides in University Park, Texas, with her husband John and their four children. In addition to many volunteer hours spent at her children's schools, she serves on the Board of Management of the Park Cities YMCA.